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A well-timed nudge

Score one for diplomacy as efforts by the White House successfully temper Musharraf's autocratic ways.

August 10, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at 2 a.m. Islamabad time Thursday. They spoke for 26 minutes -- an unusually long conversation. Though the State Department wouldn't and shouldn't reveal details, it's easy to guess Rice's message: "Don't do it."

A day earlier, Musharraf was reported to be considering declaring a state of emergency, a move that conveniently would have delayed elections for a year. Hours later, a spokesman announced that the president had decided the situation was not severe enough to warrant an emergency decree that reportedly would also have cracked down on the media and the right to assembly.

If the phone call helped deter Musharraf from what would have been a historic folly, then score one for preventive diplomacy. But the hard part still lies ahead. President Bush's admonitions to Musharraf to hold free and fair elections must be more than rhetorical, even if those elections bring defeat for the foundering Pakistani leader who has been a key (if underperforming) ally in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The general came to power in a 1999 coup and has shown no inclination to leave. Whether he survives free elections is less important than a return to civilian rule, because only a leader with a mandate from the Pakistani people has a prayer of tackling the country's endemic poverty, thwarting its fanatical Islamists and controlling the tribal areas where the Taliban is regrouping.

Even as the Bush administration has retreated from its policy of promoting democracy as an essential strategy in its campaign against Islamist extremism, Pakistanis have lost patience with the authoritarian Musharraf. In March, street protests erupted over his shameful tactics in dismissing and then allowing police to manhandle the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, who was seen as opposing Musharraf's plans to fix his reelection. And his July siege of pro-Taliban Islamists who for months had been fortifying themselves inside the Red Mosque -- a stone's throw from the headquarters of the national intelligence service -- alienated both Pakistani liberals who judged the crackdown too belated and conservatives who found it too brutal. Meanwhile, his two chief exiled political foes appear well-positioned to return.

No counterinsurgency can succeed without popular support, and certainly not one as politically delicate as the struggle against the Islamist extremists who are well-entrenched in Pakistan. Rice's phone call is a welcome sign that the Bush administration, despite its fears that Musharraf would be succeeded by hard-line Islamists who would inherit Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, finally grasps that the best way to trigger that disaster is to ignore the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people.

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